The Way We Talk About Abortion Is Part of the Problem

Photo: Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS

Last week, Texas governor Greg Abbott quietly, officially made abortion after six weeks’ gestation illegal in the state, effectively banning common surgical and medical abortions before most people even know they’re pregnant. As abortion providers, fund workers, advocates, and grassroots organizers work to help those seeking abortion care find providers out of state, everyone else is wondering just how this happened.

There are a lot of answers to that question, of course: racism and gerrymandering, Democratic indolence and Republican misogyny, white Evangelical ideology and purity culture, take your pick. And they all have something in common — no, not just with each other, with well-meaning pro-choice advocates too: the language of abortion. Think about the terms and phrases you’ve become familiar with and what they actually mean:

You don’t “abort a baby,” you abort an embryo or a fetus.

It’s not the “right-to-life,” it’s “right-to-control-a-pregnant-person’s-body.”

It’s not “pro-life,” it’s “pro-forced birth.”

There are in fact several anti-abortion terms and talking points that most of us have adopted, thanks to politicians, political pundits, and the media. Words are powerful, and these terms inch anti-abortion zealots and the laws they fight for ever closer to their end goal — government-mandated forced birth — while abortion and those who provide and seek abortion care are stigmatized.

“People who are pregnant are an abstraction in all of this news coverage of abortion; the fetus becomes the focal point,” Katie Woodruff, a public-health social scientist at UC San Francisco in the department of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive science, tells the Cut. “So it becomes almost a justification to defend the rights and the life of the fetus more than the life of the rights and the autonomy of the person who is pregnant.”

You don’t have to look far — or on Fox — to see how often abortion is inaccurately discussed. In a New York Times story about a 2019 anti-abortion bill in Louisiana, the headline read: “Lousiana Moves to Ban Abortions After a Heartbeat Is Detected.” That same year, the Washington Post published an article that asked, “What Are Late-Term Abortions?” And in 2006, CNN published an article titled, “Justices tackle late-term abortion issue.”

“When attributing a heartbeat to a six-week embryo or talking about partial-birth abortion for a procedure that doesn’t involve any birth at all,” Woodruff continues, “it just reinforces that that fetus is a person with rights that are not only equal to but stronger than that of the pregnant person.”

Janet Porter, the leader of Faith2Action, is credited with having first proposed attaching the phrase “fetal heartbeat” to anti-abortion bills, and she successfully convinced Republican state legislators to add it to a 2011 anti-abortion bill in Ohio. And in coverage, and even opposition, to the law, people adopted the term. News anchors consistently say it aloud, newspapers and online media regularly use it in headlines, and politicians repeat the term in opposition speeches. It’s now regurgitated ad nauseam, even by people who despise these draconian anti-abortion laws, like pro-choice celebrities who wield great influence and even greater platforms. But at six weeks’ gestation, an embryo does not in fact have a heart.

“A heart doesn’t just ‘form’ once a sperm and an egg meet. To create a heart, stem cells have to divide and differentiate to form cardiac cells and then cardiac cells have to divide and differentiate to create heart muscle, valves, and chambers,” Dr. Ghazaleh Moayedi, an OB/GYN and abortion provider in Texas, tells the Cut. “The heart doesn’t wait to pump until the moment it’s a ‘heart’ — cardiac cells are programmed to pump as soon as they differentiate — that’s what makes them different from our stem cells. So, ‘heartbeat ban’ is a misleading and factually incorrect term because what we are talking about is the primordial pumping of one of our first cell lines — not the coordinating pumping of an organ.” Misleading, factually incorrect, and used by anti-abortion crusaders specifically to evoke emotion in their ongoing attempt to equate an embryo to a newborn.

The same can be said of the medically inaccurate terms “partial-birth abortion,” “late-term abortion,” and even the laughably erroneous “after-birth abortion” — all medically inaccurate, purposefully deceptive terms coined by the anti-abortion movement to sow confusion and division. Moayedi says the phrase “late-term” is used in regard to pregnancy, not abortion, and describes any pregnancy at 41 weeks’ gestation. (Post-term pregnancy describes any pregnancy at 42 weeks.) No one is getting abortions at 41 weeks’ gestation — “late-term abortion” is, as Moayedi says, “medically incorrect nomenclature aimed at conflating abortion with infanticide and shaming people about the timing of their abortions.” There is no such thing as a “partial-birth abortion,” either — anti-abortion zealots use the term to describe a very common procedure referred to as a D&E, which is often also used to remove the remains of a miscarriage. And when asked about the term “after-birth abortion,” Moayedi says, “There’s no such thing as a post-birth abortion. I really think these people just need a hug?”

Again, this isn’t language exclusively used in, say, anti-abortion Fox News coverage — it’s nearly universal. Just look at the “liberal media”’s framing of abortion as a “hot button” issue over which two sides are stuck in a never-ending battle. Just this year, the New York Times published an article titled “New Twists in the Abortion Debate.” Last year, the Washington Post ran an article with the headline, “The abortion issue is more polarized than ever, leading some to view March for Life as a Republican rally,” and CNN offered readers a rundown of “where the abortion debate stands now.”

“One of the most harmful trends that we see is coverage of abortion as sort of a political horse-race issue as opposed to something that really affects real people’s lives,” Woodruff says. “What it does is confuse people about the fact that abortion is incredibly common, incredibly safe, and incredibly supported by the public. But you wouldn’t know that by watching news coverage.”

The danger in not accurately discussing abortion isn’t just that it helps set us up for more abortion bans like the one in Texas — as in, it creates more fuel for anti-abortion arguments, more misinformation to constituents, more ideas for anti-abortion politicians — but the added confusion and anxiety it gives those seeking abortion care. “We do know from research is that when there are bans even being voted on or considered in state governments, it leads people in those states to believe that abortion is no longer legal,” Woodruff explains. She says the way abortion is discussed by political commentators and covered in the news “fans the flames of confusion” and leads people to wonder if “abortion is even legal across the country.”

If we are to truly support, defend, and expand access to abortion care, we have to start by first saying the word “abortion” out loud and unapologetically (I’m talking to you, President Joe Biden) and discussing abortion accurately. “Instead of reporting on it as a political horse race, it would be great if we could have more stories of people who are grappling with unintended pregnancy and making their decisions,” Woodruff says. “People’s real stories are incredibly rare in the news and they really shape the way people shape this problem and the way we want to respond and what supports we want to make available to people who are facing pregnancy and deciding what to do about it.”

So here are some real, true things about abortion: One in four people who have the capacity to get pregnant will have an abortion; abortion is overwhelmingly safe — safer than a colposcopy, having your wisdom teeth out, or giving birth. And the vast majority of people who have abortions have at least one child at home and are often making the decision to have an abortion for the betterment of their families. It is not a debatable talking point, and embryos are not babies with heartbeats. And the most glaringly obvious of all: Every pregnant person deserves the constitutional and human right to access abortion care whenever and wherever they need it.

The Way We Talk About Abortion Is Part of the Problem